Wolves Lead

Saunders Providing New Look at T-Wolves’ Future

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The Tom Thibodeau era of Timberwolves basketball came to a confusing and screeching halt after he was fired abruptly following a 22-point victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. Ryan Saunders would subsequently take over and proceed to beat the red hot Oklahoma City Thunder.

This philosophy can be true for all NBA head coaches: if your defense can stop your offense, you’re either incredible defensively, or you’re not paying attention to the offensive side of the ball. The Wolves weren’t great defensively under Thibodeau. Thibs was a great coach back in 2011 with the Bulls, when he seemingly couldn’t miss the postseason and his squads played with defensive grit and hustle. The problem with that is that the two teams played such a different game. The Wolves weren’t his 2011 Bulls, no matter how many guys from that team he brought in. The team was based around two young stars with Jimmy Butler guiding the way.

Chicago-Minnesota Hybrid?

The first “go-to” was a Jeff Teague floater. He ran his Chicago system with an MVP point guard in Derrick Rose. Now, the Wolves still have the same player, but we all know why it’s different. Teague would dribble for roughly 18 seconds around multiple ball screens, and then find some space to shoot.

The second was a Karl-Anthony Towns post up. No matter what action was run before hand, Towns got several shots in the post with little to no help. You would sometimes see Towns on the block on one side, and everyone else scattered on the opposite side of the court just standing. No movement, no cuts. Therefore, teams could double-team Towns and completely stop the Wolves offense all together for that possession.

The third was just Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins would isolate with no help and no passes. Most of them ended with a clunker off the side of the rim after a 20-foot jumper.

Due to these outcomes, the Timberwolves were incredibly hard to watch. There was no movement. Nobody would cut off the ball. That is coaching.

If you watch Steph Curry play, you can watch him pass the ball every single time. No if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. He’s cutting off a pass or at least relocating to a spot in which he can pull up for a signature three or finish at the rim. Is Steph an intelligent basketball player? Absolutely. But when you watch Golden State play, you start to realize everyone else on the court does the exact same thing. From Alfonzo McKinnie — who has only 52 NBA games to his name — to Andre Iguodala who has played 1,082 games, everyone moves when the ball isn’t in their hands. That is coaching.

Saunders Brings Change in Multiple Areas

The Timberwolves know more than anyone about a culture change this season. After trading Butler, the Wolves went on an 11-2 tear, picking up big wins due to a newfound energy and passion on the court without a constant feeling of judgment coming from one of your own teammates.

It tailed off after this, but 11-2 in thirteen games is very impressive, and it was due to a change in leadership. The team wasn’t seemingly only based on Butler and Towns winning them games by themselves. Now, it was a team effort. Following the trade, the Wolves only have one all-star caliber player remaining in Karl-Anthony Towns. Production did pick up from the supporting cast, however. Defensive effort took a Neil Armstrong-sized leap, bringing the Wolves’ defensive rating to first in the entire league for November.

I say all of that to say this– Ryan Saunders is a great fit for this young Timberwolves team, a team trying to find an identity while developing together, unlike Thibodeau, who wanted the Wolves to play like an established playoff basketball team right away. Those expectations never changed, even after the big run they went on after the Butler trade.

New Era, New Mood

Once Thibs was fired, the entire mood of the team seemingly changed. In Saunders’ first game, the Wolves went into Oklahoma City and gutted out a 114-112 win. Who knows how much of that was just the players, or did Saunders really did change the culture that much after just one day?

Saunders came out in Oklahoma City wearing a suit his father would be proud of, and this game just felt different. The Wolves came out struggling, surrendering 8-2 and 11-4 runs in the first half, but they never really fell out of the game. At halftime, Saunders made adjustments to what the Thunder were doing well, and the Wolves roared back. Minnesota played with energy, with pace, and with some freedom on the offensive side, and with determination to pull out a win on the other. Saunders’ offensive scheme seemed to be working against OKC as the Wolves scored thirty-three points in the third quarter, and never looked back after regaining the early lead they once had.

Transition basketball was being played. Under Thibodeau, transition offense was rare. You would normally see a guard grab it and stop, even with favorable numbers going the other way. Under Saunders, you can see Andrew Wiggins being set free doing what he does best, which is going to the rim and scoring with crafty athleticism.

New Rotations

Saunders also evened out a rotation where young and old players are all seeing the floor, giving opposing lineups more to focus on. Thibodeau ran an exhausting seven-man rotation for the most part in his final season. Saunders has been running a ten-man rotation in his first seven games as head coach. He has given guys like rookie guard Josh Okogie a lot of meaningful minutes to improve and gain experience when Thibodeau didn’t give his young players as much of a chance to do so.

In Saunders’ schemes, you can see differences too. On defense, Thibodeau wanted the players to fight through screens and play help defense on the back side, whilst Saunders is leaving it up to the players to know the scouting report for that game and decide whether to switch or stay. This difference helps tremendously for a defensively struggling team to get some stops on three-point shots they may have allowed in the previous regime.

On offense, the ball moves more, as do the players. If a pass is thrown, it is usually followed by a cut or a screen. The play calls have been more complex and it shows as the Wolves since the coaching change are top 10 in the NBA in team offense. With such a young, talented group, that’s right where you would expect them to be.

Saunders Inspiring Young Wolves

These players love playing for him, and there is a noticeable difference in attitude from that win in Los Angeles to the win in Oklahoma City. The Wolves were hungry in Oklahoma City. They were excited to be playing a top team instead of going out and playing like robots. They were allowed to be human.

After Saunders’ first win as a head coach, he got mobbed by his team in the locker room with water and Gatorade flying all over him, and that right there is the difference. The fact that they could go about having fun after a good team win instead of sitting and thinking about practice tomorrow or the next game on the schedule, makes all the difference in the world.

Still in the Playoff Hunt

At 25-26, the Timberwolves currently sit 11th in the West, three games behind the Clippers for 8th. The door remains open, and the new-era Timberwolves have just as good a chance as anyone to rise to the challenge.

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